2-17 Jesus: A Man Misunderstood

The Gospel writers three times bring out the point that people perceived that the Lord Jesus didn't "care" for people. The disciples in the boat thought that He didn't care if they perished (Mk. 4:38); Martha thought He didn't care that she was left in an impossible domestic situation, doubtless assuming He was a mere victim of common male insensitivity to women (Lk. 10:40); and twice it is recorded that the people generally had the impression that He cared for nobody (Mt. 22:16; Mk. 12:14). And yet the Lord uses the very same word to speak of the hired shepherd who cares not for the sheep- whereas He as the good shepherd cares for them so much that He dies for them (Jn. 10:13). I find this so tragic- that the most caring, self-sacrificial person of all time wasn't perceived as that, wasn't credited for it all. The disciples surely wrote the Gospels with shame over this matter. It points up the loneliness of the Lord's agonizing last hours. And yet it provides comfort for all unappreciated caregivers, as spouses, parents, children, servants of the ecclesia... in their suffering they are sharing something of the Lord's agony.

It has been so often pointed out that the crowd who welcomed the Lord into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” were the very people who days later were screaming “Crucify him!”. It’s been suggested that the crowds were comprised of two different groups; those who shouted “Hosanna!” were those who had come up from Galilee, and the Jerusalem crowd shouted “Crucify Him!”. But Jn. 12:13 and Jn. 19:14,15 seem to encourage us to make a connection between the two scenes, for “the crowd” shouts  both times- firstly “Hosanna!”, and then “Crucify Him!”. Personally I am convinced it was the same basic crowd. They were a classic witness to the fickleness of human loyalty to God’s Son. And remember that only a few months after Jerusalem slew Him, the leaders of the Jews feared that “the people” would have stoned them if they acted too roughly with the followers of Jesus (Acts 5:26). Popular opinion had swayed back the other way again. And a while later, it was to sway against the Christians again, when “there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). But this leads to questions, questions which aren’t answered by a simple acceptance of humanity’s fickleness. Why this anger with Jesus, a man who truly went about doing good, caring for little children, impressing others with the evident congruity between His words and His person? How could it have happened that the anger of His people was so focused against Him, leading them to prefer a murderer as against a Man who clearly came to give life, and that more abundantly…?  

The answer, I suggest, lies in the way that they misunderstood Him. They liked Him; the Jewish authorities despaired even just prior to His death that “the world is gone after him”, because so many of the Jews were [apparently] “Believing in him” (Jn. 12:11,19); His popularity seems to have resurged to an all time high on his final visit to Jerusalem. The crowds liked some aspects of the idea of this man Jesus of Nazareth; they are described in John’s Gospel as “believing on him”, and yet John makes it clear that this was not the real belief which the Lord sought. John makes this point within Jn. 6:14,26: “When therefore the people saw the sign which he did, they said, This is of a truth the prophet that cometh into the world… Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled”. The crowd appeared to respond and perceive the significance of the sign-miracles; but the Lord knew that they had not properly understood. They apparently “believed”, but would not confess Him before men (Jn. 12:42)- and such ‘confession’ is vital for salvation (Rom. 10:9,10 s.w.). For all their liking of Jesus and some of the things that He stood for, they willingly closed their hearts to the radical import of His essential message of self-crucifixion, of a cross before the crown, of a future Kingdom which inverts all human values, where the humble are the greatest, the poor in spirit are the truly rich, the despised are the honoured...  

They welcomed Him into Jerusalem with the waving of palm fronds. These were a symbol of Jewish nationalism- hence the palm appeared on the coins of the Second Revolt (AD 132-135). Back in 164 BC when Judas Maccabeus rededicated the temple altar, palms were brought to the temple (2 Macc. 10:7); and Simon Maccabeus led the Jews back into Jerusalem with palm fronds in 1 Macc. 13:51. The crowd were therefore welcoming Jesus, expecting Him to announce His Messianic Kingdom there and then. The “Hosanna!” of Jn. 12:13 was used in addressing kings in 2 Sam. 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26. It meant literally “Save now!”. They wanted a Kingdom there and then. His whole interpretation of the Kingdom, extensively and so patiently delivered for over three years, had simply failed to register with them. 

It seems that only after the crowd had started doing this, that the Lord sat upon the donkey, to fulfill the prophecy of Zech. 9:9 that Israel’s King would come to them “humble, and riding upon a donkey”- not a warhorse. And, moreover, Zechariah says that He would come commanding peace [and not bloodlust] to the Gentiles, with a world-wide dominion from sea to sea, not merely in Palestine. Those who perceived the Lord’s allusion to Zechariah 9 would have realized this was what His acted parable was trying to tell them- the Lord Jesus was not out to destroy Rome but to bring peace to them as well as all the Gentile world. A humble, lowly king was a paradox which they could not comprehend. A king, especially the Messanic King of Israel, had to be proud and war-like. The crowd must have been so terribly disappointed. He purposefully abased Himself and sat upon a donkey. This Jesus whom they had liked and loved and hoped in, turned out to totally and fundamentally not  be the person they thought He was- despite Him so patiently seeking to show them who He really was for so long. He had become an image in their own minds, of their own creation, convenient to their own agendas- and when the truth dawned on them, that He was not that person, their anger against Him knew no bounds. The Russian atheist Maxim Gorky commented, in terrible language but with much truth in it, that man has created God in his own image and after his own likeness. And for so many, this is indeed the case. The image of Jesus which the crowds had was only partially based on who He really was. Some things they understood right, but very much they didn’t. And they turned away in disgust and anger when they realized how deeply and basically they had misunderstood Him. They angrily commented: “Who is this son of man?” (Jn. 12:34). In that context, Jesus had not said a word about being “son of man”. But they were effectively saying: ‘What sort of Messiah / son of man figure is this? We thought you were the son-of-man Messiah, who would deliver us right now. Clearly you’re not the type of Messiah / Christ we thought you were’.  

All this would explain perfectly why the awful torture and mocking of Jesus in His time of dying was based around His claims to be a King. The crown of thorns, the mock-royal robe, the ‘sceptre’ put in His hand, then taken away and used to beat Him with, the mocking title over His body “This is the King of the Jews”, the anger of the Jewish leaders about this even being written as it was, the jeers of the crowd about this “King”- all this reflects the extent of anger there was with the nature of His ‘Kingship’. All the parables and teaching about the true nature of His Kingship / Kingdom had been totally ignored. The Lord had told them plainly enough. But it hadn’t penetrated at all…  The Lord was not only misunderstood by the crowds, but His very being amongst men had provoked in them a crisis of conscience; and their response was to repress that conscience. As many others have done and do to this day, they had shifted their discontent onto an innocent victim, artificially creating a culprit and stirring up hatred against him. Their angry turning against Him was therefore a direct outcome of the way He had touched their consciences. 

Such tragic misunderstanding of persons occurs all the time, to varying intensities. One frequently finds married couples with such anger against each other that it seems hard for an outsider to appreciate how two such nice people could be so angry with each other. The source of that anger is often traceable to a misunderstanding of each other during courtship. Each party built up an idealized or simply incorrect image of the other; and once they really got to know the other, in the humdrum of daily life, there was a great release of anger- that the spouse was not the person the other partner had imaged. The goodness of who they really goes unperceived and is readily discounted- simply because they don’t live up to the mistaken image which the spouse had of them in other areas. 

And we have seen this in the life of our community. I knew a fine brother, well known for his preaching and Biblical expositions in a conservative circle of ecclesias in the 1950s and 1960s. He was by anyone’s standards a conservative, a hard liner, ever eager to point out how all other Christians would be damned and we alone ‘had the truth’. He preached a very graphic Gospel of a future Kingdom, where the Lord would return and gleefully crush all opposition and other dissenting churches under His feet. Much applauded at the time, his articles in conservative magazines remain to this day, gathering dust on shelves. Then, the brother changed. He started explaining that such an attitude had been wrong. He emphasized the spiritual graces of the Kingdom, exploring more fully the present aspect of the Lord’s Kingship and Lordship over us, teaching tolerance for those who are misbelievers, and a loving, corrective rather than judgmental attitude towards “those who oppose themselves”. And the anger of the community became focused upon him. Slandered, hated and humiliated, he was effectively crucified by his brethren. And we have all probably seen something similar go on in our own lives, when someone has a false perception of us and then finds we stand for different things than they thought we did. So often, there is an expression of anger. And it is this kind of anger which has been so destructive, and responsible for so much of the shameful division in the true church. This anger is, it seems to me, largely related to fear- fear that our understanding was a misperception, fear that we were actually wrong, that our judgments were incorrect, fear that who our brethren really are, and who the Lord Jesus really is, might reveal us in a poorer light. And it is this fear which paralyzes all meaningful growth in understanding and relationships, be it of our Lord or of our brethren, family or friends. 

Paul Tournier comments with true insight upon these phenomena: “…the preacher who thunders loudly from the pulpit in order to drown out his own haunting doubts…the confusion of minds is such that many men, in order to reassure themselves, cling with cramped fanaticism to some curious doctrine. In order to still the voice of their inner illness they cast themselves into that sectarian intolerance which involves opposing parties in strife and controversy…when a man is not sure of himself, he pretends to be the man who is unshakably convinced…the more living faith grows weaker in the church, the more the church takes refuge in formalism and intolerance”. This was why Joseph’s brothers turned against him, prefiguring the Jewish destruction of Jesus; it’s why to this day, the Jews so strongly reject Jesus. It’s why apparently devout Christians are capable of the most awful vendettas and campaigns against those who tweak their guilty consciences. To quote Tournier again: “Moral malaise and unconscious guilt feelings…release vicious reactions of perversity and that particular form of refined and insatiable compulsion which we call hate. None are so likely to become violent polemicists and to exhibit a violence, tenacity and formidable dynamism, accompanied by denigration, accusation and calumny, as those who have something on their conscience”(1). Thus the strong of this world are in fact the weak; and thus the Biblical paradox that the weak are the strong and vice versa has a definitely true psychological basis. 

But returning to the misunderstood Jesus, welcomed by the crowds with palm fronds in hope of an immediate Messianic Kingdom. Surely John intends us to think back to that when we read in Rev. 7:9 that the Lord will be welcomed by another large crowd, from every nation, carrying palm fronds and calling out praise to Him for dying on the cross and redeeming them. Here are those who truly understand Him. The Lord had in mind this contrast between the crowd and those who would truly understand Him when He said that “Now is the son of man glorified” in the things of the cross (Jn. 12:23) in contrast to the crowds who were shouting “Glory in the highest!” at the prospect of Him there and then inaugurating the Messianic Kingdom (Lk. 19:38). The true glory to God was to be through the lonely rejection of the cross. He who quietly honours / glorifies the Father (Jn. 5:23; 8:49) in the life of self-crucifixion will be honoured / glorified by the Father quietly in this life, and openly in the age to come (Jn. 12:26); such is the mutuality between a man and his God.  

And the Lord had earlier taught the crowds to focus more on the gift of Him as a person and His sacrifice, than on the literal achievement of the Kingdom there and then. The Jews understood the coming of manna to be a sign that the Messianic Kingdom had come. Their writings are full of this idea:

- “You shall not find manna in this age, but you shall find it in the age that is coming” (Midrash Mekilta on Ex. 16:25)

- “As the first redeemer caused manna to descend…so will the latter redeemer cause manna to descend” (Midrash Rabbah on Ecc. 1:9)

- “[The manna] has been prepared for…the age to come” (Midrash Tanhuma, Beshallah 21:66).

Yet the Lord told them in Jn. 6 that the true manna was His flesh, which He was to give for the life of the world. Some have supposed from Josh. 5:10-12 cp. Ex. 16:35 that the manna fell for the first time on the eve of the Passover, thus adding even more poignancy to the Lord’s equation of the manna with His death. Yet all this painstaking attempt to re-focus the crowds on the spiritual rather than the literal, salvation through His death rather than an immediate benefit for them, patient eating / sharing in His sufferings rather than eternity here and now…all this went so tragically unheeded. And it does to this day. 

If you feel misunderstood, and a victim of others’ anger because of it, realize that you are directly fellowshipping the sufferings of your Lord. You can enter somewhat into the ultimate tragedy, of the misunderstood love of God as it was poured out in the Lord Jesus to an uncomprehending and misunderstanding world. Don’t minimize what you’re going through. You really are suffering with Him. And just as surely as you went into the water at baptism and came up out of it, so you will share in His resurrection life, both now and eternally. But further. The danger is that we can be like the Jewish crowds, apparently “believing in him”, when all we are believing in ever more strongly is a mixture of our own perception of Jesus, mixed with some aspects of His true personality which appeal to us. He faces us, with His whole person and history. We are to believe in the real Christ, the whole person of Jesus, with all His radical and shocking demands upon us. May it never be true of us that we angrily complain in the last day, as did the Jews, “What sort of Christ is this? You weren’t who we thought you were…Now we see, you are a hard man…”. We are not to define Him according to who we think He should be; we are to read and meditate upon the Gospel records and allow ourselves to be confronted with the pure totality of who He essentially is, was and shall ever be. And to respond and believe in what we ‘see’ in Him.


(1) Paul Tournier, The Whole Person In A Broken World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964 ed.), pp. 34,73.



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